“To love without knowing how to love, wounds the person we love.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh
Thích Nhất Hạnh on Love
We have to restore the meaning of the word “love.” We have been using it in a careless way. When we say, “I love hamburgers,” we are not talking about love. We are talking about our appetite, our desire for hamburgers. We should not dramatize our speech and misuse words like that. We make words like “love” sick that way. We have to make an effort to heal our language by using words carefully. The word “love” is a beautiful word. We have to restore its meaning. Love is deep, beautiful, and whole.
True love contains respect. In my tradition, husband and wife are expected to respect each other like guests, and when you practice this kind of respect, your love and happiness will continue for a long time. In sexual relationships, respect is one of the most important elements. Sexual communion should be like a rite, a ritual performed in mindfulness with great respect, care, and love. If you are motivated by some desire, that is not love. Desire is not love. Love is something much more responsible. It has care in it.
If the word “love” is understood in the deepest way, why do we need to say “long-term commitment”? If love is real, we do not need long or short-term commitments, or even a wedding ceremony. True love includes the sense of responsibility, accepting the other person as he is, with all his strengths and weaknesses. If we like only the best things in the person, that is not love. We have to accept his weaknesses and bring our patience, understanding, and energy to help him transform. Love is maitri, the capacity to bring joy and happiness, and karuna, the capacity to transform pain and suffering. This kind of love can only be good for people. It cannot be described as negative or destructive. It is safe. It guarantees everything.
Should we cross out the phrase “long-term commitment” or change it to “short-term commitment”? “Short-term commitment” means that we can be together for a few days and after that the relationship will end. That cannot be described as love. If we have that kind of relationship with another person, we cannot say that the relationship comes out of love and care. The expression “long-term commitment” helps people understand the word love. In the context of real love, commitment can only be long-term. “I want to love you. I want to help you. I want to care for you. I want you to be happy. I want to work for happiness. But just for a few days.” Does this make sense?
You are afraid to make a commitment — to the precepts, to your partner, to anything. You want freedom. But remember, you have to make a long-term commitment to love your son deeply and help him through the journey of life as long as you are alive. You cannot just say, “I don’t love you anymore.” When you have a good friend, you also make a long-term commitment. You need her. How much more so with someone who wants to share your life, your soul, and your body. The phrase “long-term commitment” cannot express the depth of love, but we have to say something so that people understand.
Your strong feelings for each other are very important, but they are not enough to sustain your happiness. Without other elements, what you describe as love may turn into something sour rather soon. The support of friends and family coming together weaves a kind of web. The strength of your feelings is only one of the strands of that web. Supported by many elements, the couple will be solid, like a tree. If a tree wants to be strong, it needs a number of roots sent deep into the soil. If a tree has only one root, it may be blown over by the wind. The life of a couple also needs to be supported by many elements — families, friends, ideals, practice, and Sangha. Whether or not your relationship is bound by law, it will be stronger and more long-lasting if made in the presence of a Sangha — friends who love you and want to support you in the spirit of understanding and loving kindness.
There are two Vietnamese words, tinh and nghia, that are difficult to translate into English. They both mean something like love. In tinh, you find elements of passion. It can be very deep, absorbing the whole of your being. Nghia is a kind of continuation of tinh. With Nghia you feel much calmer, more understanding, more willing to sacrifice to make the other person happy, and more faithful. You are not as passionate as in tinh, but your love is deeper and more solid. Nghia will keep you and the other person together for a long time. It is the result of living together and sharing difficulties and joy over time.
You begin with passion, but, living with each other, you encounter difficulties, and as you learn to deal with them, your love deepens. Although the passion diminishes, nghia increases all the time. Nghia is a deeper love, with more wisdom, more interbeing, more unity. You understand the other person better. You and that person become one reality. Nghia is like a fruit that is already ripe. It does not taste sour anymore; it is only sweet.
In nghia, you feel gratitude for the other person. “Thank you for having chosen me. Thank you for being my husband or my wife. There are so many people in society, why have you chosen me? I am very thankful.” That is the beginning of nghia, the sense of thankfulness for your having chosen me as your companion to share the best things in yourself, as well as your suffering and your happiness.
If the couple lives with each other for a long time, “until our hair becomes white and our teeth fall out,” it is because of nghia, and not because of tinh. Tinh is passionate love. Nghia is the kind of love that has a lot of understanding and gratitude in it.
All love may begin by being passionate, especially for younger people. But in the process of living together, they have to learn and practice love, so that selfishness — the tendency to possess — will diminish, and the elements of understanding and gratitude will settle in, little by little, until their love becomes nourishing, protecting, and reassuring. With nghia, you are very sure that the other person will take care of you and will love you until your teeth fall out and your hair becomes white. Nothing will assure you that the person will be with you for a long time except nghia. Nghia is built by both of you in your daily life.
To meditate is to look into the nature of our love to see the kind of elements that are in it. We cannot call our love just tinh or nghia, possessive love or altruistic love, because there may be elements of both in it. It may be ninety percent possessive love, three percent altruistic love, two percent gratitude, and so on. Look deeply into the nature of your love and find out. The happiness of the other person and your own happiness depend on the nature of your love! Of course you have love in you — tinh and maybe some nghia — but what is important is the nature of that love. If you realize that there is a lot of maitri and karuna in your love, that will be very reassuring. Nghia will be strong in it.
Children, if they observe deeply, will see that what keeps their parents together is nghia and not passionate love. If their parents take good care of each other, look after each other with calmness, tenderness, and care, nghia is the foundation of that care. That is the kind of love we really need for our family and for our society.
We should always look into the nature of our love in order to see and not be fooled by our feelings. Sometimes we feel that we have love for the other person, but maybe that love is only an attempt to satisfy our own egoistic needs. Maybe we have not looked deeply enough to see the needs of the other person, including the need to be safe, protected. If we have that kind of breakthrough, we will realize that the other person needs our protection, and therefore we cannot look upon him or her just as an object of our desire. The other person should not be looked upon as a kind of commercial item.
(My adaptation; adapted from “For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts” by Thích Nhất Hạnh;